How stress can break your heart
Most of us heard about the relationship between diet and heart disease. We know that too much cholesterol and fat in the body can trigger a heart attack. What about unhappy thoughts, stress and the feeling that life is going against you? Does your thinking affect your heart’s health?
Put your left fist, thumb on top, up to your breast bone, slightly to the left of the centre. Squeeze your fist hard and rhythmically. Your heart beats like this, some 100,000 times a day pumping about four quarts of blood through your body minute (and much more when you are stressed or are exercising)
Put your fist back up against your breast bone, thumb up. Squeeze it as hard as you can, again and again. Imagine doing this all day long, year after year, for a lifetime.
Oxygen is not the only vital substance that the heart pumps through the body. Hormones secreted by the pituitary gland, by the adrenal glands, by the thyroid, and by other glands are carried to every cell in the body. So are the products of digestion, such as glucose, vitamins and enzymes.
Blood does not randomly flow through the body, of course. It flows systematically through a seemingly endless series of arteries and veins. When oxygen enriched blood leaves the heart, it flows through large arteries and smaller arteries, and then through the very small arterioles. The arterioles give way t the tiny capillaries. Only when the blood has reached capillaries does it exchange its oxygen for carbon dioxide. At this point, the blood begins its journey back to the heart. For capillaries to venules to veins, the blood flows through ever widening pipes back to the heart.
The arterial vessels carrying freshly oxygenated blood from the heart can be viewed as life giver in this ital exchange; they bring oxygen, nutrients,, hormones and other substances to the body’s tissues. The veins guiding the “used” blood back to the heart can be viewed as the garbage disposal part of the system.
The Simple Formula
In medical school, doctors learn a simple formula: blood Pressure = Cardiac output x arterial Resistance. This means that your blood pressure level depends on how much blood the heart pumps per unit of time (cardiac output) and how difficult it is for the blood to move through the “pipes” (arterial resistance).
If your heart starts beating faster than normal, its output has increased. And greater cardiac output means increased blood pressure. Your heart is trying to move the blood through the “pipes” faster, and much work harder to do so. When it does this, your blood pressure increases.
When you exercise, your cardiac output and your blood pressure increase. In a young, healthy person, this increase is nothing to worry about. Eventually, the arteries relax, expand in size, and your blood pressure drops to normal.
But stress can also increase your cardiac output; it can make your heart beat harder and faster. In fact, stress may be a major cause of elevated blood pressure. When we are stressed, we may feel like nothing is going right, like we’re going to blow the big job, like we’re always behind. We feel that people are standing in your way, or we’re upset about being caught in traffic. When we’re stressed, the brain stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. In turn, the sympathetic nervous system prompts the adrenal medulla (the inside part of the adrenal glands) to pump out adrenaline like substances. This is turning increases the heart rate, and the strength of the beat. In other words, your thought alone can lead to increased cardiac output, which leads to higher blood pressure.
There’s a certain part of the brain, the hypothalamus, which we call the “pilot” of the brain because it controls so many body processes. The hypothalamus sits right above the pituitary gland. When the hypothalamus “reads” your negative thoughts and other signs of stress, it tells the pituitary to release a hormone called ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone). ACTH then flows to the adrenal glands, where it directs them to release a number of hormones including some 42 varieties of cortisone. Amount other things; these hormones cause your body to retain salt and water. More fluid in the bloodstream means more work for the heart.
When stress is chronic, the blood vessels constrict (“tighten up”). Remember the equation, Blood Pressure = Cardiac output x Arterial Resistance? When the “pipes” get smaller, it’s harder for the blood flow thought them. Arterial resistance is increased, which means blood pressure goes up. Additionally, chronic stress changes the chemistry of the blood, making it more likely to clot. This means there’s great chance that a clot will form and lodge in a narrow artery in the heart, and cause heart attack; or it may lodge in the brain and lead to a stroke.
Having some stress in our lives is probably all right and may be helpful if it prompts us to action. Chronic stress, however, is hard on the heart.
Blood pressure = Cardiac Output x Arterial Resistance. It’s a simple formula. If you keep your heart working at normal speed and strength, if the resistance to the flow of blood through the arteries remains normal, everything will be fine. But if stress sets in motion the series of events that kicks your heart into high gear, and causes fluid retention and contracted arteries, your blood pressure will go up.
Cholesterol and Stress
Put your fist back up to your chest. Look down at the back of your fist. See the veins that are just beneath the skin? Imagine that these are your coronary arteries that supply fresh, oxygen rich blood to the heart muscle. Some of these vital arteries are only as wide as the tip of a pencil.
Let’s suppose that you’ve been eating a high fat, cholesterol rich diet and that some of your coronary arteries have narrowed not fatally so: a 50 percent blockage in this artery, a 60 or 75 percent narrowing in that. You can do reasonably well these kinds of blockages, unless stress causes cholesterol levels in the body to rise. Many studies have verified the relationship between stress and elevated cholesterol. If you throw people into ice cold water, their cholesterol will rise. If you threaten them, tell they’re going be fired, or tell them that they must take a difficult test, their cholesterol will go up.
Stress and elevated cholesterol are intimately related. Chronic anger, fear, “hurry-itis”, feelings that you are a failure, that life is out to get you; these thoughts increase blood pressure and cholesterol. Such thoughts can shorten your life. Cholesterol is more likely to be normal in people who have a positive, cheerful, confident, outlook on life.
Stress in the workplace
Work can be major source of stress. Specialists in the field of work induced disability now know that certain jobs are inherently stressful. Police work and fire fighting, for example, are highly stressful jobs; other kinds of work can also be stressful. Whether we are factory workers, clerks, attorneys, or chairmen of major companies, we often find ourselves under tremendous stress at work, on the way to work, and at home when we’re thinking about work.
For most of us, work related stress falls into two categories work overload and role conflict.
Work Overload: There are two types of work overload: Quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative work overload has to be with numbers: too many things to do in the day, too many thin phone calls to makes, too many orders to fill, too many boards to nail, too many clients to see. Too many things to do, in too little time. How often they are rushing around at work, trying to get everything done, but never quite succeeding? What is this doing to your heart, your body chemistry, your peace of mind and your health?
Qualitative work overload, on the other hand, has to do with standards that you cannot meet. You are called upon to perform beyond your ability. This happens when people are improperly trained. Or, you may be well qualified for one job, but find yourself promoted or transferred to a job that you aren’t as skilled at. The stress and frustration of trying to perform a different kind of work or to perform at higher levels, lead to work overload, mental distress and often physical disease.
It doesn’t take much overload to damage the heart. A study in the April edition of The New England Journal of Medicine reported on patients with coronary artery disease. The patients were asked to perform mental arithmetic, to complete a certain color word task, to give a speech, and to read aloud. The stress from these everyday tasks was enough to cause well motion abnormalities in many of the patients. (Wall motion abnormalities have to do with the way the heart muscle squeezes to pump blood).
Quantitative or qualitative work overload causes definite biochemical changes in the body, especially with respect to cholesterol levels. Many studies have shown the relationship between work overload and heart attacks, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and other potentially fatal disorders.
Role Conflict: Role conflict occurs when two or more pressures are in conflict with one another. It generates stress that causes mental distress, and man lead to actual physical disease. Research has shown that long tern role conflict leads certain people to experience high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and other medical problems.
The steam engine is a marvelous invention. Coal is burned in the engine, a steam forms and the steam is used to activate the turbines. Seam engines do a lot of work, and they all have a safety valve, just in case too much steam builds up inside the engine. It’s a great idea: let off the excess steam rather than risk damaging the machinery.
In our houses, stores, office buildings and factories, all the electrical circuits have build in circuit breakers or fuses. When there is an electrical overload, the fuses automatically blow, putting an immediate end to the overload before it can cause any damage.
It would be nice if we had a safety valve that let off excess and inappropriate stress. We don’t have a safety valve, but our bodies give us warning signals when trouble is brewing, when we are overloaded, or in conflict. The warnings may be seemingly minor problems such as headaches, neck ache, backaches or, the waning may be in form of heaviness in the chest, heart palpitations, or high blood pressure. The latter are more serious warnings, and must b corrected right away. Unfortunately, we don’t have a safety valve, and sometimes our warnings come too late. We should reduce the stress n our lives before these warning signals occur.
Healthy Thoughts, Healthy Heart
Every year thousands of peoples have a heart attack. Although some survive, for others a fatal heart attack was their only warning that anything was wrong. Since stress is so intimately related for ways to keep our stress level as low as possible.
Some stressors can be dealt with easily; we can change our diet and stop smoking, for example. And we can take nutrients that help protect us against the effects of environmental pollution and chemicals in our foods. But what can we do about traffic, work overload and the like? What if we can’t find a new job, or move to a city where there is little traffic? How do we handle the stress?
We learn a lesson from Epictetus, The Roman Philosopher (A.D. 55-135) who said: “I am upset not by events, but rather by the way I view them.”
With the single statement, Epictetus gave us a “medicine” for many of our ills. If we can’t eliminate every stressor in our lives, we can change our attitudes. May be we have to take a major highway to work, and maybe it’s always crowded. We can’t change the traffic, but we can learn t change our thoughts about the traffic. You see, alone control your thoughts. You, and only you, determine what your thoughts will b, whether positive or negative.
You have absolute control over your thoughts, and every thought in your head influence your body, your immune system, and your health. Beat “thought disease” by changing you thoughts. Remember that stress and your thoughts have a profound influence on your heart. Your stomach isn’t the only thing tied in knots by stress. Help your heart by keeping your thoughts as healthy, positive, happy, and optimistic as possible. Even when things are going wrong, even if you are overloaded at work, fill your mind with healthy thoughts. Your healthy thoughts may not change your unhappy work situation, but they will most certainly help protect your heart from the ravages of stress.